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Fritz to propose new public campaign finance program

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CITY OF PORTLAND - Amanda FritzSix years after Portland voters repealed the city’s public campaign finance program by a narrow margin, Commissioner Amanda Fritz is preparing to ask the City Council to enact another one she is calling the Open and Accountable Elections.

For participating candidates, the new program would include a city matching fund for $50 campaign contributions from individuals, and maximum contribution and spending limits. The city match would be 6-to-1, meaning a $50 contribution would become a $350 contribution. Maximum contributions would be limited to $250, and in-kind contributions would be capped at $20,000 in each of the primary and general election campaigns. Total spending in City Council races would be capped at $250,000 in the primary election and $300,000 in the general election. Total spending in the mayor’s race would be limited to $380,000 in the primary election and $570,000 in the general election.

Fritz will present other details when she unveils her proposal at a public forum to gather community comment from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Matt Dishman Community Center, 77 NE Knott St, Portland. Her office says it is intended to accomplish several campaign reform goals, including: removing the perceived or real influence of big money; amplifying the voices of small-dollar contributors; increasing transparency and accountability; allowing candidates from diverse background the opportunity to run; allowing candidates to be competitive by engaging with a broader pool of small donors; utilizing public dollars responsibly by providing safeguards to abuse and fraud; and assist in making the cost of campaigns affordable and accessible.

The proposal was developed with the help of several organizations that favor campaign reform, including Common Cause Oregon, Unite Oregon, and Color PAC.

“Common Cause works to reform our elections so that everyday voters — and not powerful donors — are front and center in our democracy. We met with Commissioner Fritz's office to examine the proposal, to ensure that it works for Portland and includes elements that have been successful in other locations. This reform will help make sure that everyone's voice is heard in our democracy, regardless of their wallet size,” says Daniel Lewkow, the political director of Common Cause Oregon.

Color PAC board member Jesse Beason says the proposal could help elect minority, female and lower income candidates to the council.

“There have been just two people of color and seven women on Portland’s City Council — ever. Currently our entire city commission lives in the wealthiest part of Portland, and only two commissioners ever have come from east of 47th Avenue. Yet half of Portland are women, one out of three residents are people of color and six out of ten live east of 47th,” says Beason.  

The proposal is likely to face opposition from the Portland Business Alliance, which opposed the first program and helped fund the campaign that rejected it.

“Portland voters have already said no to the concept of using tax dollars to pay for political campaigns. Commissioner Fritz seems interested in reversing the decision of the voters, which seems contrary to democratic principles,” says PBA President and CEO Sandra McDonough.

Fritz in the only non-incumbent elected to the council with money from Portland’s previous public campaign financing program, officials called Voter Owned Elections. The other candidate was former Commissioner Eric Sten, who was re-elected while participating in the program.

The first program was introduced by Sten and then-City Auditor Gary Blackmer. It was approved by the council in May 2005 with a requirement that it be submitted to the voters to be continued after five years. The program required candidates for council and auditor to collect 1,000 five-dollar contributions from qualified voters, and candidates for mayor to collect 1,500 five-dollar contributions to receive $145,000 and $195,000 for the primary elections, and $195,000 $245,000 respectively for the general election. It was financed with a small percent of all city bureau budgets.

The program was controversial from the start. The Portland Business Alliance backed a referral drive that obtained enough signatures to refer it to the voters, but a Multnomah County Circult Court judge invalidated them because city election officials — who worked for the auditor — provided outdate petition collection sheets. During the first election cycle, novice candidate Emily Boyles received public funds before it was revealed her campaign consultant forged some of her qualifying signatures. She also misspent some of the money and did not pay it all back after she lost. After Sten was reelected in the second cycle with public funds, he resigned halfway through his term. That same cycle, mayoral candidate Sho Dozona was disqualified from receiving public funds after he collected enough signatures because he received too much in-kind contributions in advance. And in the final primary election cycle before going to the voters, first-time council candidate Jesse Cornett received and spent $145,000 in public funds, only to finish third behind a candidate who raised a mere $23,000 in private contributions.

When Portland voters finally had a say on the program at the November 2010 general election, the rejected it by 50.38 to 49.62 percent, or 1600 votes.

Fritz has talked about reintroducing such a program since then. She is now in her third term after being re-elected twice with voluntary campaign contribution limits.

For a Willamette Law Review article on the history of the Voter Owned Election program, see tinyurl.com/hgsoacx.